Dame Kathleen Kenyon, 1906-1978

Dame Kathleen Kenyon – The Great Sitt – ‘K’, stands out as one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th century working anywhere in the world.

Born into an academic family (her father was Sir Frederick Kenyon, the Director of the British Museum), she had an extensive and eclectic career, which included writing and publishing, teaching, administration, and management of academic institutions, including the Institute of Archaeology at the University College London, and St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. as well as an extensive field career, during which worked in Africa, Britain, and Palestine.


In 1928 she joined the excavations at Great Zimbabwe in what was then Rhodesia, under the direction of Gertrude Caton-Thompson, whose stratigraphic excavations demonstrated beyond doubt the then controversial hypothesis put forward in 1905 by David Randall MaIver, that the ruins were Medieval in date, and indigenous to the local population. This demonstration of stratigraphic methodology answering difficult archaeological problems, and seemingly immune from ideologically motivated interpretations, definitely appealed to Kathleen, and it was developing these methodologies that was to be the hallmark of her career.


In 1929, she joined the Wheeler’s excavations at Verulamium, the 2nd – 4th century AD Romano-British site near St. Albans, where an excavation method based on meticulously dug trenches of 5 by 5 metre square, separated by 1 metre baulks in which the stratigraphic record of what had been dug through was preserved and diligently recorded. This became known as the ’Wheeler-Kenyon Method’.


Kenyon was involved in several UK excavations throughout her career, such as those at the Jewry Wall excavations in Leicester, Southwark Cathedral in London, and three Iron Age hill forts at Breedon on the Hill in the West Midlands, the Wrekin in Hertfordshire and Sutton Walls in Herefordshire.


From 1948 to 1951, together with Major John Ward-Perkins, the new Director of the British School at Rome, she co-directed the excavations at the Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Roman city of Sabratha on the Libyan Coast, focussing on the chronology and development of the site. One of Kenyon’s ambitions was to secure a chronological ceramic typology for North Africa, but her busy teaching schedule and other commitments made this impossible. Subsequently, Philip Kendrick and colleagues have published the reports with the Society for Libyan Studies, using Kenyon’s extensive notes, and with the benefit of 3 decades of scholarship on the ceramic typology to make sense of them.     


In the Levant, Kenyon dug at three sites: Samaria, Jericho, and Jerusalem.

An aerial view of the site of Samaria Sebaste under excavations in the 1930s

Situated in the olive growing heartland of Palestine, Samaria was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel under its kings Omri and Ahab in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. The Israelite city was destroyed by the Assyrian armies Sargon II in 721BC, but it was redeveloped in subsequent Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. It became associated with John the Baptist, and there is a Crusader church on the site. The adjacent village of Sebastia is a treasure trove of Late Antiquity architecture.

From 1931 to 1935, Kenyon joined the international team of the Joint Expedition to Samaria directed by the British archaeologists John Winter and Grace Crowfoot. Kenyon first worked on the expansive Roman city, before moving up to Area Q on the acropolis, where Roman and Hellenistic buildings overlay, and often cut into, far earlier remains of the Israelite Palaces, and frequently re-using masonry from earlier materials. Employing the ‘Wheeler-Kenyon Method’, Kenyon dug a trench running north to south across the summit of the site. She quickly became an expert on the local pottery. By carefully noting the layers, and the associated pottery, she was able to disentangle what was a bit of an archaeological mess.

Acropolis at Samaria
‘Area Q’, on the Acropolis at Samaria, showing the successive periods of building from the Israelite Iron Age to the Roman Period

Her final sequence for Area Q began with an ephemeral Early Bronze Age phase, followed by a succession of 6 substantial Iron Age phases which she associated with the Israelite Kingdom, up to its destruction in 722 BC by the Assyrians. On top of this were phases connected to the Hellenistic remodelling of the site, and later a massive redevelopment by King Herod, when the site was renamed Sebastiyeh. Kenyon used the pottery found in the foundation trenches of the earliest Iron Age phase to determine the date of the first settlement of Samaria – Period 1, which she dated to the reign of King Omri (822 – 871 BC).


In the 1950s, Kenyon, by now Director of the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem (BSAJ), was to tackle one of the most iconic sites in Palestine – the mound of Tell es-Sultan, identified as biblical Jericho, in the Jordan Valley. This is the site for which she is best known, and where she acquired her Arabic moniker ‘The Great Sitt’. Jericho had been investigated briefly by Charles Warren for the PEF in 1868, more substantially by the German archaeologists Ernest Sellin and Carl Watzinger between 1907 and 1909, and then by British archaeologist John Garstang from 1930 to 1936. Both his and the German excavations revealed impressive remains of several successive cities. However, they disagreed as to their dating, and which, if any, walls were those which Joshua and the Israelites had brought down. Garstang eventually concluded that the walls of Joshua’s Jericho dated to around 1400 BC, but he was unhappy with this interpretation. He asked Kathleen Kenyon to re-examine his findings, and then enthusiastically backed her own excavations at Jericho from 1951 to 1958.  Employing the detailed stratigraphic approach she had developed throughout her career, Kenyon demonstrated that the walls which Garstang had dated to 1400 BC and assigned to Joshua’s invasion, were 1300 years older, dating to the Early Bronze Age period of around 2,700 BC. She also demonstrated that at the only time historically possible for Joshua’s invasion to have occurred, at the end of the Late Bronze Age around 1150 BC, ancient Jericho was a very minor settlement, and consequently the biblical story could not be interpreted as historical fact. It was Kenyon’s application of the Wheeler-Kenyon method, now fully adapted to a middle-eastern mud brick archaeology, which made Jericho such an important and influential excavation. Jericho represents a real turning point in the practice of field archaeology in the region.


After Jericho, in 1961 she began excavations at Jerusalem, in the area south of the old city comprising the Ophel Ridge and Mount Zion, where she hoped to make sense of the confusing archaeology. In every respect, it was horrendously difficult. However, Kenyon was not one to delegate, and dealt with every aspect of the dig herself, both administrative and archaeological.  Her work was of a very high quality, but the still-inhabited stone city did not suit her working methods as well as the abandoned ancient tell of Jericho.

Ophel Ridge
Kenyon’s Excavations on the Ophel Ridge, south of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1960s. Photo by John Bartlett
Armenian Garden
Surveying in the Armenian Garden area of excavations within the Old City walls of Jerusalem. Photo by John Bartlett

Kenyon was made a Dame Commander of Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1973, and a Grand Officer of the Order of Independence by the King of Jordan in 1977. She was also a Fellow of the British Academy (FBE) and of the Society of Antiquaries (FSA). The BSAJ, now a part of CBRL, was re-named the Kenyon Institute in her honour in 2003.